As a therapist I am inundated with people that come in or are dragged in by relatives for the elusive anger management. I use the word elusive to describe it for everyone manages their anger differently. Though there are techniques to help with the behavioural aspect of anger, understanding the internal and external factors that cause a person to react with anger is critical.
Most of the people who come in to work on anger are high functioning, successful in most spheres of their life and are ambitious. There are also those people whose depression and anxiety come across as anger, irritability and impatience. An interesting perspective on anger especially in women was written by Harriet Lerner in her book ‘Dance of Anger’ (1985), in which she coined the term ‘de-selfing’. This term describes anger that is related to basing one’s sense of self-concept on the opinion of others and thus behaving in ways to please others at the cost of one’s own needs. When one is then not appreciated or acknowledged, anger becomes the emotion of choice.
So, what is anger and why is it judged so harshly? Anger is a basic human emotion that is experienced by all people. It is a natural response to help defend us and warn us that something is not quite right in our environment. It captures our attention and motivates us to act to correct that wrong thing. However how we end up handling the anger signal has very important consequences for our overall health and well-being.
Anger triggers the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and towards the muscles, in preparation for physical exertion. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase, the body temperature rises, and the skin perspires. The mind is sharpened and focused in the short term. However, long term consequences of having too much cortisol in the body causes the pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus to lose neurons which leads to poor memory and ability to reason, plan and make rational decisions. It also decreases the serotonin levels in the brain that leads to sadness and anxiety.
Anger is the most common substitute or secondary emotion. This means that subconsciously we choose to feel anger because feeling the primary emotion which is the real cause of distress is too dangerous for our egos. Usually anger asks as a mask for pain, fear, guilt and sadness. It is much easier to feel angry than to allow ourselves to feel sad and vulnerable. Anger is an emotion that mobilises energy and gets us into action. It distracts away from having to sit down, feel and reflect on the real cause and possibly even our responsibility in the situation.
Anger is also a way we delude ourselves into thinking that we are in control, but it is actually the total opposite for it comes across as being out of control of our response which is truly the only thing we can control. Most of the time situations can not be changed but the way we respond to it can. As they say:
“When you can’t control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what happening. That’s where the power is”.